By Brett Girven, Principal at The Arbor School Dubai

“Brett contacted me probably 4 or so years ago. The Arbor School in Dubai was newly built and with an environmental focus. In fact it looked like a mini Eden Project! But they need to know how to embed sustainability into their school whilst following the English National Curriculum. This may be a long blog but the learning journey Bret and the school has been on, ably facilitated by my colleague Ben Hren is a remarkable learning journey.” Ann Finlayson, CEO and Learning for Sustainability Lead

I have become an expert in doing. I can create, deploy, and track an action plan in my sleep. New regulations for buses? Sorted by morning break. A surprise government announcement requiring an immediate and significant change…no problem, we will have a new timetable, staffing and resourcing by end of day. A new inspection regime stating that we must up the ante on student progress? No worries, my students will now make accelerated progress on top of their already accelerated progress. The rate of progress in my school is increasing so fast that I sometimes wonder if we are a school, or a large hadron collider. Everyday hurling more and more stuff through a small tube with greater and greater speed, just to see what occurs when reality collides with subjectivity. Kaboom! What will happen? New and wonderful ways of learning? An almighty explosion and complete meltdown of the system? The formation of a strange new artificial intelligence that transforms our ways of doing? Nobody knows what tomorrow will bring. The weird thing though, is that all of these ‘tweaks’ to the existing ways of doing assume that the current way of doing is the best way. That if we can just tweak a bit here, adjust a bit there, accelerate a little more everywhere, we will somehow get to the future we envision, regardless of the fact that it is receding further and faster with every day we stare at the horizon. How do we reconcile this ontological position, this implicit understanding that the way in which we currently see the world is the correct way to see, and therefore act, within it? How do we reconcile this position with the fact that the way in which we have seen and acted up until this point has got us to, well, exactly where we are today? Which, without putting to fine of a point on it, does not seem likely to be ‘sustainable’ for too much longer.

Sustainability in schools is both easy to do, and hard to achieve. Which is interesting, because this article in some ways is an ode to, and critique of, dualism – the separation of this from that. The doing is easy. Schools are littered with the debris of great stuff that has been done. The achieving of, i.e., whether the doing resulted in any permanent improvement, is debatable and largely unknown in most schools. We use proxies to assess the degree to which things improved as a result of the doing. Exams as a proxy for learning. League tables as a proxy for school quality. Staff turnover as a proxy for staff wellbeing… there is very little we explicitly KNOW. Sustainability is the new high priority wave of doing – I wonder what the proxy will be? Eco-councils. Green flags. Designated students with the responsibility to be the tap turner – offers and light switch monitors in each class. We do, do, do, because as educators we optimistically believe that the world can be made better through tweaks and adjustments to the existing way of doing. Well, in a strange deviation from the sustainable development goals, carbon literacy and eco-councils, let me propose that to achieve the kind of education that we need, in order to achieve a sustainable future for our planet and the humans and non – humans who inhabit this earthly household, we require not merely the reformation of existing systems and ways of doing, but a transformation of how we think, know and ultimately do. Lofty goal? Maybe.

So, let’s start with dualism and sustainability. What’s the connection? To cut short the journey through time, philosophical traditions, and pugilistic purists on the internet, essentially since we (I use ‘we’ in the general sense of most of humanity) left our indigenous hunter-gatherer traditions, we have separated nature from self. Various influential philosophers reinforced this, and Renee Descartes finally sealed the deal as he ascribed man and soul to be one, and everything else to be the ‘machine’. We separated ourselves from the natural world, ourselves from each other, and gave ourselves the freedom to maximize our own health/ wealth/ wellbeing at the expense of everyone and everything else. We followed this with a scientific epistemology that supported that notion, the evolution of a monetary system (capitalism) that was based on that separation, and pressed ahead as if it had always been thusly. So whilst indigenous world views saw self as an extension of, and connected to, nature; modern views saw us as separate. Given that separation, we dug up, burned, and generally exploited all of nature’s bounty with the god given grace to do so as it was not ‘us’. We ‘othered’ nature. So now that we see we have perhaps erred in our philosophical ruminations, the solution would seem not to be to simply tweak what we are currently doing, but that we need to ‘un-other’, or to use a more reasonable word – reconnect, to eventually rebalance our account with nature. Philosopher Alfred Whitehead, coming down on the other side of the philosophical fence a long time after Descartes, preferred ‘Organic Realism’. The notion that everything is a process, and that by perceiving or experiencing something, we are both changed by it and it by us.

“Thus as disclosed in the fundamental essence of our experience, the togetherness of things involves some doctrine of mutual immanence. We are in the world and the world is in us.”

To sum the paragraph, the fundamental change needed starts not with doing more with the current mindset, but with recalibrating our mindset and eventually accepting that we are connected to nature and therefore what is good for ‘it’, is good for us. If this connection is made, what follows is the realization that sustainability and the maintenance of status quo is nowhere near a lofty enough goal if we truly desire human flourishing. Stating ‘sustainability’ as the goal, is kind of like saying ‘I just want to feel ok’. Whilst that may be a reasonable interim goal, I want more than that – for myself and my kids. I want them to thrive. To flourish. To face each day with a smile and know they are loved and that they belong. And if human flourishing and the environment are intrinsically linked, we therefore don’t want mere sustainability – we need abundance.

So where to start in a school if the stakes have been raised from a desire to maintain the status quo, to a desire for a world of abundance. (By the way, we can maintain ‘status quo’ for quite some time without realising things are not actually getting any better. Green washing does just that. Green washing helps us feel better without actually having to make any meaningful changes). So where to start?

First, I acknowledge that all of the things I have facetiously mentioned above – the eco-councils, light switchers and tap turners are inherently good things and should not be abandoned. I do not want to discourage the small and individual acts in sacrifice to the large and heroic. But I would ask teachers and schools to slow down the doing. Not only is it exhausting, it runs the risk of falling upon the debris heap when that passionate eco-leader moves on, when we run out of money for the recycled paper we purchased, or when light switching becomes less of a priority than pen licenses.

So what do I think we should DO in our schools in order to build a world of abundance?

First, accept that it is of vital importance that schools have a responsibility to educate towards an ecocentric world view. By that I mean accept that we as humans are mere support actors in this experience called life on earth. At the end of the day and regardless of what happens to humans, the Earth will be just fine. The Earth and the cosmos will carry on without us. It has in the past and will in the future. But if we fail to reconnect with this worldview, the human experience will come crashing down. An ecocentric viewpoint is essential for maintaining the perspective of our place – where we are and what we can and cannot do to intervene in Earth’s systems. So as a school leadership team, the strategic plan must start with a query: how do we build an education to reconnect with nature, given the constraints of our current systems?

Given this query, we may approach it in the same way as we would a literacy intervention or new programme for numeracy.

  1. Define the problem/ challenge/ query.
  2. Identify the end state we desire.
  3. Develop a list of metrics which would indicate improvements towards that end state.
  4. Put together an action plan.
  5. Get started.

What we tend to do as impassioned educators is move directly to #5, with good intention and urgency to make a difference. The outcome is usually lots of well-intentioned doing, and little consequential, irreversible change for the better. What we desire is transformation – a deeply ingrained outcome where the individuals who work in the system and the individuals subject to the influences of this revised system (i.e. the kids) are different, compared to how they would have been if we continued with the previous system and tweaked around the edges. As Stephen Sterling puts it: “If education is to be an agent of change, it has itself to be the subject of change. Our educational systems are implicated in the multiple crises before us, and without meaningful rethinking, they will remain maladaptive agents of business as usual, leading us into a dystopian future nobody wants”.

So, the end state I desire for my school is a programme of experiences and learning that provides children the opportunity to reconnect with the world around them, to understand the fundamental ecological basics upon which our living world functions, to apply this knowledge to authentic world challenges, and ultimately build a human future within a healthy, abundant global ecosystem. Note, I haven’t defined a world of abundance as the outcome I want – that is waaaay beyond my control. What I am damn good at, is working at the scale of a school. By golly, I can give my kids the chance to flourish within the boundaries of my school, and that’s what I’m gonna do.

How do we bring this end state into being? As every school is different – location, setting, context, community; it may be folly to give specific examples of how to achieve this end. Therefore, phrased below are some guiding questions to help your thought processes if you do embark on the journey. What are the levers of leadership we have, upon which pressure can be applied in order to nudge the changes into place? Well, the levers are no different for sustainability than they would be if we wanted to improve literacy or numeracy. We can effect change in where, when and how children spend their time (physical environment, timetable, resourcing etc), how educators teach (pedagogy), what educators teach (curriculum), and how we estimate the degree of learning (assessment). Leaders need to ask themselves the following questions:

  • What do we need to change/ invest in/ or provide access to, in order to ensure the learning environment provides direct access to nature, and if not direct, how can our environments approximate some degree of ‘naturalness’?
  • How does our timetable provide time for children to be present in nature? How does this change over time from early learners to teenagers? If teenagers are not ‘connecting’ with nature on a daily basis, what do we offer as a school at an age-appropriate level to allow them to understand the connections between systems?
  • If we desire human flourishing, how are we ensuring that socio – emotional learning is prioritized within the busy schedule?
  •  What strategies should we add to our teaching toolbox to encourage this reconnection with nature? What might it look like for subject specialist’s vs classroom teachers, primary vs secondary… There is no single pedagogy that works everywhere for everyone, but it would seem reasonable that a carefully chosen combination of learner – centred pedagogies that encourage independence and transdisciplinary thinking alongside the explicit instruction required to build the declarative and procedural knowledge that provides the foundations from which we begin to explore.
  • How do we build a programme of learning (i.e., curriculum) which is age appropriate, progressively challenging and rooted in ‘place’, to allow our students to reconnect with nature and build the understanding and action competence needed? This is probably the biggest question and challenge, and you may need to lean on experts, research and current best practice. There is no official road map to achieve an eco-literate and eco-competent student, although there are changes afoot within many curricula to include sustainability and pro-environmental behaviours which may provide some clues.

Having asked these questions, because you are a school leader and you are also busy dealing with finances, facilities, HR, recruitment, procurement, buses, uniforms, safeguarding… it will very soon become clear that to tackle any of these issues is to tackle them all. Why change the curriculum if we are procuring endless amounts of single use resources for the classroom? Why build carbon literacy into the curriculum if we have not optimized our fossil fuel driven transport system, or even removed the fossil fuels from the system? We have to live it, as much as we teach it. And by now you will have also realized the folly of doing. The eco-council is great, but in the process of achieving the long term change which is desired, without the other elements above, it is a nice activity to get kids involved in. It’s nice to do. But we don’t want to do sustainability. We want a future of abundance. No matter how hard we try to responsibly understand and take action to live a life within the opportunities and constraints of ecological systems, we typically fall back into old ways of thinking and being in the world. The reasons and solutions for this are not straight forward. One of the reasons for this is that we tend to recycle old ideas, ideas that seemed to work in the past, and we get stuck in a cycle of old ways of thinking and doing.

So… stop doing. Start living it. Live it in the very fabric of your school. In the way we think, we teach, we test, we buy, we build, we act, we resource, we plan, we play. When we truly start to live it then we are in the process of changing to an ecocentric world view. No one will be perfect at the outset, but we must start, and start now.